“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self” | A Riff on True Detective, HBO’s Philosophical Crime Show

Reviews, Riffs, Television

HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.

I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.

It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):

The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.

It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.

I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.

The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.

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30 thoughts on ““We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self” | A Riff on True Detective, HBO’s Philosophical Crime Show

    1. Breaking Bad was mainstream fiction that took us all on a wild ride. TD seems to be something maybe a little more heavyweight, asking questions about our very nature.
      Time will tell.

  1. Great points. Been waiting for this one to start. Just watched; thanks for the reminder. This has high potential, but can fall apart if you look closely enough if it’s not balanced right. Fingers-crossed on this one.

  2. Pretentious as fuugggg. Why would a detective come out with a monologue like that unless his voice was being controlled by a writer? Seems a bit unrealistic

    1. I think you could make that criticism—that the voice is being controlled by a writer—of almost *any* character in almost any TV show.

      Shows like Deadwood (probably my favorite TV show ever) get a lot of flak for being “overwritten”—but really, what we see in that show—and this one, I believe—is a refusal to metaphorize the scene or couch the scene in other trappings. A lot of times this is because the central character can only process what is happening to him in other, (indirect) terms. The Sopranos did this. The Wire did this. Even Breaking Bad did this, despite the (supposed) controlling intelligence of its central character.

      Cohle’s monologue makes total sense in the context of the scene—he has been holding all of these thoughts in, silent, alienated (alienated from his sense of self b/c his insight of auto-affection leads him to understand that the self is a self-producing illusion). So there’s no filter—no metaphor—no bullshit. The writer/director/showrunner/etc. give us direct access to the character’s mind here—and, tellingly, they have his partner there, telling him to shut up, telling him, basically, that he’s pretentious as fuugggg.

      1. I should not have expected biblioklept to want to see realistic writing. Things only get on this site if it’s a meta-post-ironic socio-psychological commentary. No offence. I’ll watch the show and take your words into consideration since you took the time to clarify the context of the scene. Thank you.

        1. Maybe taking time before pre-determined-judgement will help. Given the context of the scene, it makes sense: it’s his dead daughter’s birthday, he’s just seen a murder scene and his partner wants him to open up, a Gnostic pressed to nihilism because of the day. I hate commenting, but this stuck out to me.

          1. Everyone hates commenting. Everyone hates arguing. Everyone tells you they hate commenting on the internet. And how do they tell you? By commenting on the internet. Don’t be that guy. Comment or don’t.
            Maybe you could develop a system whereby before entering a discussion group applicants must meet criteria like passing a test to prove they’re familiar with the subject. I wasn’t aware it was a prerequisite. I guess you’ve never judged anything before you’ve experienced it. Also, I don’t remember addressing you.

  3. In the tradition of dime novels and who dunits and many a cowboy novel. Often real life cops are not two dimensional air heads, nor are some robbers. If mb had ever known a small town sheriff, he would be aware that dealing with tragic profundities gives depth to character. Reminiscent of Bringing Out the Dead, and Clockers, for some reason.

  4. Have to agree with the commenter above. This show is pretentious and silly. When I want philosophy I read philosophy. I don’t go to Wooderson for my philosophy. Ellroy, Leonard, MacDonald, and all the other greats of Crime would never write shit like that. The only purpose that kind of dialogue serves is to show how smart the writer is. And I would argue that yes, a writer can have ideas like that, but it’s better to dramatize the ideas, conceptualize them, rather than stick them in the mouth of Matthew McConaughey. That’s just lazy. The great thing about David Lynch is that he takes ideas like this and turns them into images, or structural devices. His chracaters almost never say anything “smart.” Ideas like the one above would be embedded in the DNA of the show/film, so that you feel them, instead of them being told to you. This is just Drama 101. It’s what I hated about McCarthy’s The Counselor, too. Dreck. Trash masquerading as art. I prefer it the other way around.

  5. mb & CTRL-ALT:

    I’m confused. Does your distaste for philosophical conversations (or meta-thematic conversations) within a story also apply to literature? Do you dislike and find The Judge’s monologues in Blood Meridian equally pretentious, or are they acceptable because they’re written on a page an not being delivered by an actor? I think, rather than this being an issue over “show, don’t tell”, this is a preference for the kinds of characters you enjoy most on screen.

    Take another example: the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. This had just as many philosophical ponderings coming out of the mouth of the protagonist. Did you also find this to be drek? Why can’t a character, such as the knight in The Seventh Seal, go through a psychological existential crisis while at the same time the story itself is exploring existential themes? Don’t *real* people go through these sorts of crises in real life while in the midst of conflicts that exacerbate what they’re feeling (e.g., the death of a loved one, viewing something horrific, receiving a diagnosis, etc.)?

    It also might be a reflection on your conversational preferences. I myself feel like I’m constantly having those sorts of conversations with those close to me, because I tend to think about those issues often, so maybe that’s why Cohle breaking into those verbal considerations felt very natural to me. In fact, I probably would’ve went to a similar mental space if I’d seen what he’d seen.

    1. General reply to the thread so far:

      I pretty much always trust my intuition when it comes to lit, art, film, etc. By this I mean something either Zaps me or it doesn’t. This show Zapped me. I don’t know if it will pull it off over all eight episodes, but I think it Works. I don’t think it Works because of some formula or balance or technique or explicit or implicit philosophy or any one specific thing. For me, the first episode just Works.

      If it didn’t Work, I would absolutely hate the monologue that I presented here—I would think it pretentious, etc. I would echo Mr. -ALT, perhaps—show don’t tell; let the form be the content, etc. But the first ep of True Detective Zapped me. Like I said. Which makes me think that there is something internally cohesive about the show.

      I’m not arguing that this show has to Work for someone else. There is a very long list of stuff that Did Not Work For Me Despite Many Attempts—e.g. Breaking Bad, Captain Beefheart, David Fincher, Haruki Murakami—but I wouldn’t say it’s bad just cause it Did Not Work For Me.

      (Except Murakami. He’s wildly overrated).

      1. Glad to see someone else doesn’t like Murakami or Breaking Bad or David Fincher (I really liked Zodiac, though, which, had absolutely none of the saucy philosophizing of something like True Detective. I mean, it had NONE.) I gave into the hype and watched the first season of Breaking Bad and could not, for the life of me, understand what all the hosannahs were about. I just don’t get it. It’s fine television. So is Chopped. And everytime the BB promo comes on the Sundance Channel and Cranston says, “I’m not in danger, Skylar; I AM the danger,” I can’t help but laugh. That’s considered the pinnacle of acting? Okay. But then again, they just nominated Streep for August:Osage County and DiCaprio for the Wolf of Wall street, so I guess praising overacting is the in thing right now.

        1. I liked Zodiac too, and I think that some of his scenes are good (Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo come to mind—but they don’t add up to much). I wrote about it here:

          http://biblioklept.org/2008/01/07/what-i-liked-about-that-zodiac-movie/

          —and got a bunch of negative comments.

          Breaking Bad—I’ve been forcing myself to finish it, out of some misguided sense of critical duty—like so I know what I’m talking about or something when I don’t rank it with the best. Or maybe the same reason I made myself finish Tess of the D’Ubervilles, or Clarissa. I don’t know. I’m almost done with the 3rd season. Its stylistic/tonal shifts are jarring and I pretty much detest everyone in it. It has a good sense of place though. Its symbolism is too heavyhanded. And the first season was sort of like MacGyver.

    2. I usually have terse, phatic, ambiguous conversations with people where what is really being said is left out of the conversation altogther.

      I can’t get past the first thirty pages of Blood Meridian, and I don’t want to bother trying anymore. Can’t stand McCarthy and his nihilistic cowboy horseshit. The world is evil and we’re all going to die, rinse and repeat for 40 years. Life is a lot more complicated than that.

      The guy who wrote True Detective is not the Coen’s. His writing is sophomoric. A complete lack of humor is always red flag to me.

      And the line “everybody is nobody” is one of those flip aphorisms that appears deep when you first hear it, but then, upon futher reflection, sounds inane and reaching for profundity. It’s like a generic lyric from some grunge band circa 1995.

  6. what I find interesting is that the concept of worship (the need to worship something or the need to be worshiped by someone), has always been a huge part of human consciousness when wanting to detract oneself from the realization that we are nobodies. and with the murder, the killer is attempting to display both, a willingness to worship the act that he is commiting even with ritualistic like display, as well as commanding the attention/worship of those that come to witness this act.

  7. It’s the 2-D cheap escapism crowd vs the this must have meaning crowd. A little more ordinary in taste, I liked Kojak the occasional times I saw it because it portrayed the musings that most mortals with a bit of awareness and intellect conjure. ‘New York is burning’. Is Northern Exposure a bad fake because it was basically a philosophical comedy? Mash? Is Philosophy (big P) some thing to be kept segregated in a box to be taken out when the mood strikes, but never reflective of life local like some people make of spiritualism? Of what value are the ‘higher’ things in life if they don’t illuminate life as experienced by most people? I suppose that Calvin and Hobbes is a pretentious cartoon because it isn’t insipid. Is Art (big A) reserved for parlor fops? Even Alley Oop has philosophical content.

    1. I didn’t say there can’t be philosophical content. I said it’s the way you present it that matters. Having the character blurt it out is clunkly and hacky, and has more to do with the ego of the writer – look how smart and deep and clever I am – than anything else.

      1. Well, there is content and there is style and to hear some philosophers tell it, there is only style. According to the Tibetans there is emptiness only. I respond well to more formalist theatre. Seems to me that Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights used conversations as asides to formulate philosophical renderings of the drama at hand. And to ponder life’s basic questions, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor. As a dramatic effect, klunkiness can have a more pleasing esthetic than suaveness.

  8. thanks for posting this! I can’t get enuff of Matthew McConnaughey these days — and Woody Harrelson is no slouch either. I love James Ellroy and thought The Wire was excellent & I’m in the process of downloading this first episode thru piratebay thanks to you.

  9. Now that I have watched the trailer (I enjoy arguing about things I know nothing about), I realize that I have had this same conversation as Matt many, many times. The objective being to arrive at the truth rather than winning a debate. It does not seem to matter whether I am using the same stilted, clunky words to communicate to a local redneck or an uber Liberal, the reaction is the same. I have had some people start screaming at me to just shut the f*** up because I bring them too close to self-reflection. It is (ironic?) that in this culture of mirror queans a clear reflection of one self is some thing to be avoided. When the loop of Nihilism is closed successfully the ecstasy of existence as it is can result. Unfortunately, my musings can have adverse effects as unintended consequences. I have caused some one with whom I was trying to establish a basis for friendship go into a kind of psychic remission and really lose it. I am still waiting to hear from him in hopes that we can go on beyond his emotional eruption. I didn’t purposefully push his buttons. I abhor manipulators and do not manipulate even psychotics out of respect. Now, if I can find someone who has HBO to watch the series with who won’t go ‘what does that mean?’

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